As Microsoft pushes forward on the path towards Windows 7, the successor OS to a very disappointing Windows Vista, the Redmond-based software company has made an Internet Explorer 8 release candidate available for download.

IE8 will come bundled with Windows 7 and represents Microsoft’s effort to maintain IE’s always-vulnerable but still-dominant hold on the browser market.

In a blog post, Microsoft General Manager Dean Hachamovitch states:

IE8 focused on how people really use the web. Consumers want a browser that makes the tasks they do every day faster and easier. The activities people spend their time on define real-world performance: navigating to websites, working with tabs, searching, keeping track of changing information (like traffic or an auction), and using the information from one site with another (as in getting a map). Everyone wants a trustworthy browser that keeps them in control and protects their safety. Developers want great developer tools, great interoperability, and a powerful platform that enables them innovate. For some people, accessibility is crucial; for some organizations, policy, administration, and deployment are essential.

To that end, IE8 includes a number of new features which are quite intriguing.

The most notable: Accelerators and Web Slices.

Accelerators are designed to complete “everyday browsing tasks without navigating to other websites to get things done.” Quite simply, they enable IE8 users to use popular web services, such as search and maps, without having to leave the current web page. Accelerators are sort of like plug-ins and third party Accelerators from companies like Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia and Facebook are already available.

Web Slices let you monitor certain parts of web pages (as designated by their owners) for updates without actually having to go back to them to manually check for updates.

There are a plethora of other changes and features in IE8, including new security and privacy functionality. From new safeguards against cross-site scripting exploits to InPrivate Browsing, which is designed to make it easier to browse the web without leaving a trail, it is clear that Microsoft is trying to offer a browser that will give consumers no reason to look elsewhere.

Overall, most reviews of IE8 are on the positive side and the initial impressions early versions of Windows 7 and its associated software have made seem to indicate that Microsoft should fare better with Windows 7 than it has with Vista. Certainly Microsoft feels that it needs to; in many respects, it cannot afford another Windows Vista.

For online publishers and webmasters worried about having to check the compatibility of their websites with IE8, there is good news – sort of. IE8 features a database of websites that IE8 doesn’t work with and will automatically switch into ‘Compatibility View‘ when it deems it appropriate. As VentureBeat’s Anthony Ha points out, IE8 passes the Acid2 browser test but not the Acid3 browser test.

Since the post by Microsoft’s Hachamovitch indicates that “the technical community should expect the final IE8 release to behave as the Release Candidate does” online publishers and webmasters may find it worthwhile to download the release candidate and give it a test drive.